German Lawmakers Sign Off on Phase-Out of Coal

Germany’s plan to end coal-fired power generation in the country is now official, as both houses of the German parliament approved the plan to shut down the last coal units by 2038.

Lawmakers signed off on the deal July 3. Environmental groups have supported the measure, though some say it does not go far enough to protect the environment and more quickly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Supporters of a free market for German energy say it’s not necessary, and is a waste of taxpayer money, including its compensation plan for coal companies.

A major part of the strategy approved Friday is its promise to pour about €40 billion ($45 billion) into regions impacted by the closure of coal plants and coal mines to prop up local economies and retrain workers.

The plan is part of Germany’s “Energiewende,” the country’s effort to reduce reliance on thermal power generation and generate all the nation’s power from renewable resources. The government last year said it would close all 84 of its coal-fired power plants by 2038, and also has said it will end the use of nuclear power by the end of 2022. The country immediately shut down eight of its 17 reactors after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, part of a wave of nuclear closures in several countries.

1. The Datteln 4 power plant in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany came online on May 30. Courtesy: Uniper

Though Germany is phasing-out coal, it recently brought online what it called its last new coal-fired units, with the startup of the 1,100-MW Datteln 4 power plant (Figure 1) on May 30. The plant is Uniper and located in Datteln in the North Rhine-Westphalia region.

At least eight coal-fired power plants in Germany are scheduled for closure this year. “The days of coal are numbered in Germany,” Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said after Friday’s parliament vote. “Germany is the first industrialized country that leaves behind both nuclear energy and coal.”

‘Historic Mistake’

Environmentalists support Germany’s plan to close coal plants, but have protested against the current strategy. Greenpeace and other groups have been vocal in their opposition; on Friday, they dropped a banner down the front of the Reichstag building, home to parliament. The groups say the coal plants should be closed sooner in order to more quickly reduce GHG emissions.

Martin Kaiser, executive director of Greenpeace Germany, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was making a “historic mistake” by not setting an end date for coal of 2030, or sooner. Merkel has said she wants Germany to be a leader in helping Europe end GHG emissions by 2050.

Schulze has said the government will continue to look at ways the closure of the country’s remaining coal units (Figure 2) could be expedited.

2. The cooling towers of the 3,000-MW power station in Jaenschwalde, Germany, are an emblem of the country’s long history of coal-fired generation. EPH took over the plant from Vattenfall in 2016. Courtesy: Vattenfall

Environmentalists also have also criticized the large payments being offered to coal companies to shut down their plants. Leaders of Germany’s opposition Free Democratic Party have argued existing emissions trading systems that put a price on carbon should be expanded, saying that would encourage the closure of plants that are not profitable.

Spain last week closed seven of that country’s 15 remaining coal-fired power plants, with the operators saying the units could not make a profit without government subsidies.

Germany closed its last black coal mine in 2018. It continues to import coal, though, and also continues to mine its own reserves of lignite, a brownish coal that is abundant in the eastern and western regions of the country. The loss of jobs in the mining industry, a bulwark of the German economy for decades, has been a major argument for supporters of keeping coal plants open.

Interestingly, Michael Vassiliadis, chair of the Mining, Chemical and Energy Trades Union, the main union for German miners, has supported the move away from coal. He called Friday’s vote a “historic milestone,” and reiterated his continued support of a government focus on expanding renewable energy.

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).

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